The Tough Chapters

NEW YORK — These days, people are always complaining that baseball isn’t exciting. It’s usually nonsense, of course, sort of like saying that The Catcher in the Rye doesn’t have enough car chases. But as Steven Matz crumpled against the Phillies and the Mets’ offense knelt in submission one inning after another, I almost agreed.

This happened today — the Mets played the Phillies, Steven Matz pitched, and the game ended in a 6-2 loss. But is any of it real? Could a professional baseball game possibly be so nondescript? Eight Mets reached base…besides Dominic Smith’s too-late ninth inning home run, who are the other seven? Was this all a dream?

A baseball game is a complex thing, an incomprehensible pattern of threads, all connected, some resolving themselves, some immediately forgotten. But sometimes — like when Steven Matz pitches and falls apart, and the game devolves into a long, nondescript snore — the threads cease to matter, and the game loses its meaning. Sometimes, The Catcher in the Rye needs a car chase.

If you’ve come looking for takeaways from the game, allow me to recommend psychotherapy. But in the meantime, a small sampling:

  • Steven Matz needs a haircut. Matz’s hair has gotten long, and he hasn’t shaved in a while. He looks far more than a few years removed from the rookie who made the electrifying debut in 2015, and it’s translating into fastballs left belt high to dangerous hitters.
  • The irregulars, as I’ve heard they’re called, continue to mash. While Jeff McNeil rests his knee and Pete Alonso searches for his power, the Mets find their offense in strange places. Dom Smith is batting .300, has homered in four straight games, and has a 1.163 OPS. Tomas Nido is batting .350; his OPS is 1.109. Luis Guillorme, after another hit, is batting .455.
  • A few minutes too late to make a difference, the Mets got 3.2 scoreless innings from their bullpen. Jeurys Familia, then Brad Brach, then the mercurial Dellin Betances…besides two bad pitches from Steven Matz, the Mets played a hell of a game.

The sad truth, unfortunately, is that those two misplaced Matz pitches were the difference between a close game and a laugher. In the fifth, after the Phillies loaded the bases with one out, Andrew McCutchen worked a full count. A strike could have sat McCutchen down, and gotten Matz most of the way through the jam he was facing. Instead, Matz threw a 3-2 fastball that missed the zone. Having walked in a run, Matz set out to get ahead of Rhys Hoskins, the Phillies’ next hitter, well-known for being patient at the plate. But Hoskins took a swing at Matz’s first pitch and drove it to the right-center field gap, clearing the bases and giving the Phillies a 5-0 lead.

If McCutchen strikes out, does Matz worry less about throwing his first pitch to Hoskins for a strike? Fueled by pitching his way through 2/3 of a jam, does he ride the momentum to the third out of the inning? The answers are (1) probably, and (2) it’s possible. But instead, one bad pitch leads to another, and by the time the smoke clears the Phillies are leading 6-0, and suddenly the most interesting part of the game is the bite on Brad Brach’s slider.

Unfortunately — and I hate how much I’m using that word, but it seems appropriate — that’s the kind of thing that happens when your rotation looks like the Mets’ does right now. Three of the Mets’ current five starters are plan B’s. More accurately, David Peterson, Walker Lockett, and Robert Gsellman are the Mets’ plans B, C, and D. They’re not far from an F.

Whether the Mets can turn things around and reverse their 9-13 record is a question only the team can answer. It’s also a question that shouldn’t need to be asked. Zack Wheeler will start for the Phillies tomorrow. His 2.89 E.R.A. is at least two and a half runs lower than the E.R.A’s of four of the Mets’ five starters. Wheeler is a Phillie because the Mets didn’t want to pay for him, because, so they said, the rotation was good enough already. There were options available. Options like Rick Porcello (5.68 E.R.A.) and Michael Wacha (6.43 E.R.A., currently on the injured list).

The simple truth is that the Mets’ rotation needs to pitch better, and soon. If the Mets want to have any fans left, they can’t keep putting on games like this one. Sure, the offense was bad too — but games need to be more than counting down to the starting pitcher’s inevitable implosion.

I’ll never tire of it, of course. It’s just another thread to follow in the long, complex story of a baseball season. After all, The Catcher in the Rye is my favorite book.

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